WHERE CAN I GO FOR HELP?
Written by Doug Ponder on January 20, 2013
Stranger Than Fiction
Once in while you come across a story in Scripture so strange that you wonder why the author bothered to include it in his account. Why would an intelligent and respectable man (Luke, the author, was a well-educated doctor) include an account so bizarre that it might tempt his readers to disbelieve other things he had written? Because, as strange as it may seem, it must be true.
So when we read about handkerchiefs with healing power that had touched the apostle Paul, our focus shouldn’t be on whether or not this actually happened (it most certainly did), but on why the author bothered to tell us about such things.
One answer could be that this kind of thing is what God plans to do all the time. Perhaps he is in the holy handkerchief business? Certainly not. (Though we should point out that there are still charlatans and hucksters who steal money from others by selling “blessed” items like handkerchiefs and vials of water. God says that he has reserved “utter darkness” and “unquenchable fire” for those who deliberately lead others astray like this.) But how do we know that handkerchiefs with healing powers are not God’s normal way of working? Well, because the Scriptures tell us. Luke writes that “God was doing extraordinary miracles” in this case. Now all miracles are extraordinary by definition, since they are events that do not occur naturally in the physical world. Therefore, an extraordinary miracle is one thing is unique even for miracles. In other words, we shouldn’t go looking for this kind of stuff to happen again. Indeed, the Scriptures do not record anything like this happening ever again.
So why did God do this? Because the people of Ephesus were deeply steeped in magic and the occult (as their multi-million dollar collection of magic books demonstrates). They were obsessed with power. To confirm Paul’s message, the good news of Jesus’ power to save and restore, God would have to show up in a big way. So he did. He enabled the apostle Paul’s presence to heal diseases and drive away evil spirits. He did this not for personal gain, but for the sake of demonstrating that as the Lord of heaven and earth, Jesus has real power over the natural and the supernatural.
Of course, whenever something extraordinary happens, there are always phonies and copycats who try to get in on the act, hoping to make a quick buck or find their fifteen minutes of fame. That’s what happened with the Jewish exorcists who attempted to use God’s power—basically steal it—to promote themselves (19:13-16). It backfired. The demon possessed man overpowered them, and all who heard of the story marveled at God’s real power to do what these phonies couldn’t (19:17).
Luke saves the biggest display of God’s power for the very end. In an act more marvelous than exorcisms and healing handkerchiefs, God was able to change the hearts of the people in Ephesus. They were convinced of the truth of Paul’s message about Jesus and convicted about their sin and idolatry. So they joyfully burned their own books in a public demonstration of their repentance and faith in Jesus (19:19). As a result of this, the gospel continued to “spread widely and grow in power” (19:20). Luke’s point seems to be this: healing an illness is nothing in comparison to the kind of power needed to change people. That is no small feat, because we’re not talking about changing habits; we’re talking about changing hearts. God changes people who were his enemies and haters into people who are lovers and friends (Eph. 2:1-10; Rom. 5:10).
That kind of remarkable change doesn’t come from within ourselves. It can’t come from inside of ourselves, since we’re the ones who are spiritually dead and in need of changing. Instead, that kind of change comes from the outside-in, as the Spirit of God “makes us alive in Christ.” This is the good news of the gospel, that the powerful God who reigns over the cosmos uses his power to help us. And he does this by leading us to know and love Jesus.
Why Jesus? Because as Blaise Pascal, the famous mathematician and philosopher once said, “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God, the Creator, made known through Jesus.” Or as the Scriptures say, “This is eternal life: that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). He not only saves us, he brings everlasting peace, fullness of joy, and mercy and grace in times of need.
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.